Insight: Suicide prevention for yachties
By Georgia Tindale
Content note: This article contains discussion of suicide.
In recent years, there has been a clear increase in the number of conversations around mental health within the yachting industry, with helplines and other organisations such as ‘Yacht Crew Help’ stepping in to fill the gap which was previously evident for those looking for support and guidance on board their vessels when times get tough.
More broadly, as well as helplines and more immediate help for those in crisis, there has also been an uplift in the number of instructional courses appearing that help to educate those in yachting on this topic. These cover topics such as how to identify the warning signs of suicide and mental health difficulties among friends and fellow crew, what to say when someone is showing signs of suicidal ideation or self-harm, and how to help them find the best possible help.
I was recently given the opportunity to take part in the ‘Suicide Prevention, Addiction & Recovery’ course, hosted by The Crew Academy, which has had 61 crew attend its courses on this topic in 2022. TCA has also hosted a free two-day captains’ mental health programme, which has seen 161 captains take part since June 2021, as well as over 600 yachties taking part in its general mental health first aid courses over the past 18 months (find out more about its range of courses here).
Hosted on Zoom, I was pleased to see industry participants from all around the world participating, with crew cabins of all shapes and sizes (and all different time zones!) being represented. The course was insightful, challenging and difficult listening at times – although we were always kept safe and well looked after by the course facilitators, Hannah Buckland and Andrew Roch.
With the course covering a lot of ground and spanning an entire evening, here are just some of the facts I took away from my time.
Fact one: Suicidal thoughts are not rare
There are many reasons why many people still do not feel comfortable discussing suicidal thoughts – whether they are their own or belong to someone else. The idea that if you mention suicide, you may ‘encourage someone’ to take action in this way (a myth), or that others will be surprised/shocked and act negatively/differently towards you if you open up about your own mental health difficulties can certainly be a barrier.
That said, however, there is nothing particularly rare about having suicidal thoughts. One in 15 people is estimated to have made an attempt at their life at some point, with factors such as bereavement, addiction, stress in the workplace, redundancy, sudden and unexpected life changes, financial strain or relationship breakdowns acting as just some of the potential pressures which could result in someone having suicidal thoughts.
As Hannah explained, in day-to-day life, you are actually more likely to come across someone having thoughts of suicide than somebody having a heart attack, meaning that it is vital that we have the confidence and awareness of what to do if we do so.
Notably too, in the UK it is a 75%-25% split between men and women being lost to suicide, with men finding it more difficult than women to reach out for support. With this in mind, it is more important than ever that we normalise the conversation and ensure that people feel able to speak out when things are becoming overwhelming.
Fact two: People do not ‘commit’ suicide
One simple way to help reduce the stigma around this topic is to be mindful of the words that we use. Rather than saying that someone has ‘committed’ suicide, like someone might have committed a crime, the accepted terminology is that someone has died by suicide.
Suicide has not been a ‘crime’ in the UK since the law changed in 1961, and even a small semantic change like this can make a huge difference to how comfortable someone might be in opening up to you.
Fact three: Asking someone if they are suicidal will not make them more likely to act on their thoughts
With limited space available, this is the most important message I would like to get across to anyone reading. If you spot that someone you care about is behaving differently – perhaps withdrawing from activities they usually enjoy, talking negatively about themselves and saying that others would be ‘better off without them’, or describing themselves as a ‘burden’ – it is always worth raising that conversation with them and asking directly: ‘Have you been experiencing suicidal thoughts?’, and if they answer yes, asking ‘have you made a plan to act on these?’ If the answer is yes, it is time to speak to them about where they can get professional support. This will not make them more likely to take action on their thoughts, but more likely to be able to seek the help they need.
On the flip side, it is also worth noting that people will also sometimes go the other way and start behaving recklessly, or even planning for after their death by suicide by arranging their affairs and ‘getting their house in order’ and displaying an unusually positive mindset in the weeks prior to the attempt.
The key thing to look out for is the change in behaviour – then it is time to act. The discomfort you may feel about asking such a direct question is understandable, but the difference you can make to someone, and the relief they will almost certainly feel about being able to talk about their feelings, makes it all worth it. The sooner we can normalise the conversation around suicide, the sooner we can help people realise that, however much it may feel like it, they are not alone.
If you would like more information about current support available both within yachting and more broadly, there are some useful links below.
Yacht Crew Help